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Why Medicine Must Actively Combat Racism

Advancing diversity in medicine has been one of my top priorities since I became dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. Since then, we have made many inroads that build on our institution’s history of leadership in this area, including establishing an Office of Student Diversity, starting an annual Diversity Week, and—among the most impactful—launching a groundbreaking scholarship program that eliminates medical education debt for students in financial need. Still, it has become abundantly clear in recent months that we must extend our commitment to diversity to actions that work consciously every day to combat racism.

Like many of you, I have been horrified by the repeated incidents of race-related violence and police brutality against members of the Black community—cruelties that are symbolic of America’s legacy of structural racism. It was gratifying to see so much of the country galvanized last summer by demonstrations calling for racial justice, to an extent not seen since the civil rights movement more than fifty years ago. It is disheartening, however, that there is a large sector of the population lashing back against this movement. Clearly, this issue is a polarizing one—which only emphasizes the importance and exigency of actions designed to combat racism and promote greater diversity in the institutions that reflect our society’s values. We at Weill Cornell Medicine have a responsibility as leaders in academic medicine to demonstrate what it looks like to confront inequality with self-awareness and transparency, and commit to the uplift and wellbeing of all.

To be truly inclusive, equitable, and effective as doctors, researchers, and educators, we must show faculty, staff, and students who are underrepresented in the STEM fields that they are welcome in our medical and graduate schools—and help them succeed and advance in their careers. Our cover story in this issue explains how we have recently put a number of initiatives in place to ensure greater fairness and belonging within our community, such as requiring annual anti-bias training for all employees and ensuring that our medical and graduate school curricula include content on social determinants of health.

Progress is being made on a number of other fronts, too. We are seeking new and better ways to improve access to high-quality care for medically underserved patients. As an academic medical institution, we already know that disparities exist in healthcare, resulting in increased risk and worse outcomes in minority communities for conditions like hypertension, prostate cancer, and stroke. Such deep inequity has only been underscored by the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionately devastating effects on Black people, who die of COVID-19 at two to three times the rate of whites. As healers, we have felt the injustice of that burden, which has been compounded by ongoing structural inequalities including economic insecurity and greater rates of unemployment among Black communities because of the pandemic. The work of our Center for Health Equity, which develops new interventions that can surmount adverse health outcomes and is now aggressively studying COVID-19 health inequities, has never been more essential.

We’re doing this important work not just because rejecting racism and bigotry is the right thing to do. Greater diversity in the biomedical workforce will lead to new and better treatments and cures for disease, since different voices and perspectives spur innovation. With a scarcity of Black male doctors in particular, we have an obligation to build the pipeline of physicians and scientists of color to make healthcare as effective as it can be.

Promoting diversity and equity has long been one of WCM’s missions—but now more than ever, there is a profound urgency to heed that call. As we move forward with heightened efforts to address the discrimination and marginalization that our Black and brown colleagues encounter, we also look to a future in which medical leadership includes more women, Asian Americans, and other underrepresented groups.

We in academic medicine have a history of facing challenges, whether it’s caring for patients with the rarest of life-threatening diseases or tackling an unprecedented pandemic like COVID-19. Combatting racism is as formidable a challenge. We can best overcome it by recognizing our blind spots and striving toward individual and collective awareness of the systems and behaviors we need to change so we can do better by our patients—and each other.